Making Jesus Black: The Historiographical Debate on the Roots of African-American Christianity

By Vaughn, Steve | The Journal of Negro History, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Making Jesus Black: The Historiographical Debate on the Roots of African-American Christianity


Vaughn, Steve, The Journal of Negro History


The convergence of cultures which began with the importation of West African slaves into the British North American colonies has resulted in some of the more poignant ironies in American history. Perhaps chief among these was the widespread adoption of Christianity by African-Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Though it was the faith of the master class and often used as justification for African enslavement, Christianity was embraced by many blacks with a fervency that put most white believers to shame.

The nature of this black slave Christianity has long been a subject of speculation among theologians, folklorists, and, of course, historians. The central issue, for most researchers, has been what Lawrence Levine calls "a questions of origins."(1) By uncovering the degree to which black Christianity was rooted in African religions, historians (and others) hope to explain the seemingly unreasonable behavior of slave converts. This essay will discuss several of the more recent works on this subject, in particular as they relate to the eighteenth century. This, however, brings up a point which should be made at the outset. The amount of work that has been done on black slave Christianity in the eighteenth century is limited at best, and for the seventeenth century it is even more meager. In large part, this is a function of the lack of widespread slave conversion prior to the mid-1700's. However, knowledge of the religious sensibilities of slaves (be they Christian or otherwise) during the first century of their presence in the colonies seems central to the issue at hand. Excellent treatments have been made of African religious traditions and considerable material exists on antebellum slave Christianity (indeed, many of the works touched upon herein devote themselves largely to the nineteenth century) but an unacceptable vagueness still seems to prevade our knowledge of first-generation slave beliefs.

A good place to begin an examination of some of the more recent work on this topic is Albert J. Raboteau's Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. After a brief discussion of African religious traditions and a somewhat misplaced examination of African-American religions in Latin American, Raboteau conveniently provides us with an overview of the historiographical debate surrounding slave Christianity proceeding his own contribution. On one side, says Raboteau, are those historians who maintain that "the African was almost totally stripped of his culture by the process of enslavement" and thus it had very little to do with the development of black Christianity. On the other side are those who claim "the slave system did not destroy the slaves' African culture and a considerable number of Africanisms continue to define Afro-American culture in the United States." As representative of these positions Raboteau singles out E. Franklin Frazier and Melville J. Herskovits.(2)

In The Myth of the Negro Past, Herskovits attacked the apriori positions that "primitive" cultures, such as those in West Africa, could not possibly survive once transplanted into a "civilized" milieu. He maintained that far from being childlike people drawn from the lowest ranks of an underdeveloped society, African slaves left behind a sophisticated social structure and carried with them their languages, world views, and values. Upon establishment in North America, these cultural elements were not simply swept aside by a European orientation, argues Herkovits, but were "reinterpreted." European words were translated into African speech patterns" and "European culture was translated into African value and behavior systems."(3)

Frazier's response, in The Negro Church in America, to Herskovits' claims was a polar opposite position. Raboteau discusses it as a reaction to Herskovits' "overstated" case, but Frazier's position seems no less overstated. According to Raboteau, Frazier claimed that the preponderance of young male slaves, the mixing of tribes and kinship groups, the Middle Passage, the small, dispersed plantations and the "seasoning" of slaves all contributed to a "deculturation" process which destroyed African culture. …

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